Sarah Hayward

Research Group: Visual & Material Culture Research Centre
Award studied: PhD

Project title

John Langdon Down's Normansfield Stories from the archives and their potential contribution to heritage


The pursuit of social acceptance and integration, equal rights and self-advocacy, is an ongoing struggle for those with a learning disability. An important part of this endeavour is the understanding – and ownership – of the history of learning disability. One of the means of achieving this is through its heritage, the interpretation and representation of learning disability to a contemporary audience.

This archives-based Research Project explores the early years of Normansfield Hospital, opened in 1868, one of the first institutions dedicated to the understanding and treatment of learning disability. It seeks to understand the ideology and methods of the institution's founder, John Langdon Down (1828-1896), a key figure amongst the early pioneers working towards the classification and treatment of learning disability.

Although the institution closed in 1997, Normansfield retains its connection to learning disability. Its ornate theatre, built in 1879, was recently restored, and the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability was established in the large room beneath. The same building is also home to the national office of the Down's Syndrome Association and Down Syndrome International.

The Thesis presents two comprehensive case studies built around selected material from the Normansfield Archive Collection. The first is dedicated to the Normansfield Theatre; the second reconstructs the story of a Normansfield patient. These seek to demonstrate the potential contribution of the archive material, and facilitate a discussion of the possibilities and limitations of archive research.

In order to best consider and contextualise the Langdon Down Museum of learning Disability, the Thesis examines representations of learning disability – and, more broadly, mental health issues – within other, relevant museums. This leads on to a discussion of heritage, including the 'difficult' heritage of sensitive and complex subjects, and an exploration of the interconnection between heritage and performance.